ST. PETERSBURG — As of Monday, tow trucks are once again a crime-fighting tool.
An old city ordinance that allows police to impound vehicles used to solicit a prostitute, make a drug deal or carry illegal drugs, is back. Police began enforcing it this week.
"It gives us another set of consequences to help deter those crimes," said St. Petersburg Police Department spokesman Bill Proffitt.
Offenders will have to pay $500 to recover their vehicle, in addition to towing and storage fees. They have 15 days to contest the seizure, but if no action is taken within 30 days, the vehicle will be turned over to the towing company.
Police need probable cause to impound a car. Only owners and co-owners are affected.
The ordinance first went into effect in 1999, when St. Petersburg took a cue from other Florida cities that had adopted similar measures. It was voluntarily suspended in 2003 while a lawsuit, Mulligan vs. Hollywood, Fla., went through the legal system.
In Hollywood, a car is turned over to the city at the end of 30 days, and a city official hears any case that is contested. The lawsuit charged that the process favored the city.
It argued that, in essence, the ordinance allowed the city to permanently seize the vehicle. It pointed out that a state law that allows a seizure for cars used in the commission of felonies already exists.
But an appeals court found that there was a distinction between the ordinance and the state law. The ordinance was in fact, an impoundment, which is temporary, and not a seizure, which is permanent. Furthermore, the ordinance applies to misdemeanors.
The rules in St. Petersburg are different enough that the issues brought up in the lawsuit did not apply. A car is not turned over to the city and those who hear the cases are not city employees.
"In reality we never had a problem with our ordinance, but in an abundance of caution, and out of fairness to everybody, we simply stopped the process," said Don Gibson, legal adviser for the St. Petersburg Police Department.
Thanks to the ordinance, 604 cars were impounded from 1999 to 2003, and $260,250 flowed into city coffers, according to police statistics.